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Social, Ethical and Legal Implications of Genetically Modified Crops

By jmcpprs Sep 24, 2011 2445 Words
Social, Ethical and Legal Implications of Genetically Modified Crops

There is considerable evidence documenting the role of genetically modified products as a sustaining food source. Products of genetic engineering are steadily winning the world community’s favor. According to the research conducted by the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), consumption of genetically modified products is constantly growing in the majority of countries. However, genetic engineering in general and genetically engineered crops in particular is a controversial issue. Genetic engineering is aimed to produce new substances or improve traits and functions of existing organisms by a set of technologies, which involves various direct interventions in genetic processes such as modifications, manipulations, and recombination of genes or the DNA. Methods of genetic modifications allow scientists to alter the structure and organization of genetic material faster and more deliberately than traditional methods of breeding and selection. “Agricultural applications of the technology have involved the insertion of genes for desirable agronomic traits (e.g. herbicide tolerance, insect resistance) into a variety of crop plants, and from a variety of biological sources” (Nestmann, Copeland & Hlywka, 2002, p. 1). The main widespread genetically modified or transgenic crops include “cotton, corn, soybeans, virus-resistant sweet potato, rice with increased iron and vitamin A content, plants that can survive extremes of weather, low-caffeine coffee beans, and slow-softening tomatoes” (Lachman, 2006, p. 76). Although transgenic plants are recognized to possess the following positive traits: they are more unpretentious, resistant to viruses and insects, tastier, more productive, easier processed, longer stored, ripen faster than unmodified plants and the US National Research Council defined genetically engineered plants as safe for consumers in 2000, there are a number of debates concerning their potential application. The current wide utilization of genetically modified crops evokes a lot issues connected with ecological safety, consumers’ rights, ethics, health care, and intellectual property. Impacts of genetically modified crops on humans have not been thoroughly investigated yet, all tests were short-term, and negative consequences can occur in posterity. In addition, replacing traditional crops transgenic plants inevitably pauperise ecosystems. Hybridization of genetically modified plants can result in the appearance of “super weeds” resistant to traditional herbicides and pesticides. Moreover, according to the research conducted by University of Minnesota, genetically modified crops need more chemicals than traditional species. The main issue is whether these crops are safe for people’s health. Several corporations, such as the Monsanto Company, DuPont, and the Dow Chemical Company, develop technologies of genetically engineered crops; it is unknown how they will dispose of their intellectual property in future. Consequently, economic and legal aspects of genetic agriculture should be clarified in countries cultivating transgenic crops. Providing supportive economic, administrative, and legal regulations, some states enhance genetically modified crops in the world market. The current intense debates about biotechnologies and genetic modifications of food do not mention the prominent aspect of transformation of world agriculture by a small group of chemical/biotechnological companies. This aspect has much in common with geopolitics and plans of some individuals to control the growth of the planet population in future decades. Producers of genetically modified seeds claim that the utilization of transgenic crops can alter numerous problems worldwide. Improving the crops yield, it can reduce poverty and hunger in developing countries and provide farmers with better access to markets. Farmers apply transgenic crops due to the flexibility of new cultivation technology, expectations of lower expenses, potentially big crops, and the state’s assistance in selling genetically modified production. The Monsanto Company is one of the symbols of genetic engineering, which occupies the leading position in the market of transgenic crops. The company Monsanto Chemicals was founded in 1901 and has contributed significantly to science development since then. Information regarding the company’s achievements is available for everybody on its Internet site. However, ethical aspects of Monsanto’s activity are less popularized and known. The company patents its inventions without fail and is the legal owner of transgenic plants. In order to buy Monsanto’s genetically modified seeds, farmers should sign a contract with the company, which has three major items. Firstly, farmers agree to pay a technology fee. Secondly, farmers must not save seeds for further use or cultivation, but must allow detectives employed by the company to check their fields within three years after purchasing seeds. However, GMO extends with pollen spontaneously; as a result, fields and crops appear to be contaminated with GMO. “If found to have saved and replanted seed, farmers are liable for a noncompliance penalty of 120 times the cost of the seed. Finally, in an effort to forestall resistance to the Bt toxin among target pests, growers agree to plant a refuge of non-Bt cotton in addition to their Bt cotton” (Barnett & Gibson, 1999, p. 647). It is obligatory to use pesticides and herbicides such as Roundup produced by the company. Having developed crops resistant to Roundup, the Monsanto Company increased the sales of its own herbicides. The Monsanto Company owns the technology of “Terminator”, which was developed by the Delta & Pine Land Seed Company. This technology allows transferring “a self-destruction gene” to such plants as corn, cotton, canola, and theoretically even to wheat. If a farmer uses “seeds-terminators,” he cannot share seeds with other farmers any more or grow his own seeds. He has to buy Montano’s self-destroyed seeds every season. The initial developer of this technology, the Delta & Pine Land Seed Company, notified that the primary objectives of “Terminator” were the markets of rice and wheat in China, India, Pakistan, and other heavily populated countries. Monsanto’s strategies do not differ from activities of other companies working in the field of genetic engineering. All biotechnological corporations achieve their purposes by identical means; they aspire to derive benefits in spite of ethics and moral standards. The main objective of the creation of transgenic plants is to acquire “eternal” buyers of genetically modified seeds, herbicides, and pesticides. Thus, corporations like Monsanto are entitled to better protection by law than farmers. However, Percy Schmeiser, a canola breeder from Canada, has become a symbol of the anti-genetic-engineering movement; his case against Monsanto drew worldwide attention. In 1998, the company sued him for patent infringement, because his field had contained Roundup Ready canola seeds and he had not obtained a license for the plant. “Unlike most farmers who buy new seed each year, Schmeiser saved his own to replant. He discovered the herbicide-resistant seed during the common practice of spraying Roundup around roadside power poles edging his land” (Izakson, 2003). He had not planted genetically engineered seeds intentionally, but the Canadian federal court ruled in favour of the company in 2001 that the farmer had to pay Monsanto $100,000. In 2007, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that Percy Schmeiser had broken patent rights of Monsanto, but he had not received any commercial profit; therefore, he was not obliged to pay the company. Today Percy Schmeiser is assured that he has reached the main purpose; he has managed to prove that companies producing transgenic seeds are responsible for their distribution and storage. This precedent is the first case in the history of legal relationships between biotechnological companies and farmers. In order to support and consult farmers sued by Monsanto, the Center for Food Safety (CFS) has opened a free hot line. The CFS provides farmers with legal support for litigations “as well as public education, grassroots organizing and media outreach” (CFS). Despite these significant objections to genfoods, the governments of Argentina, Canada, and the United States have not regulated these products any differently from their unmodified parental strains. In these countries, collectively called the Miami Group, transgenic crops are not subjected to any mandatory safety tests or labeling requirements; they are evaluated, marketed, and introduced akin to traditional foods. Such a method of regulation not only withholds crucial information from consumers but it also exposes them to potentially unsafe food, compromising their health as well as their ability to make informed market decisions. (Berenji, 2007) Demand for genetically modified products directly depends on the awareness of the population of possible consequences of genetically engineered products. Europe, where the population has enough information on properties of GMO and their presence in the foodstuff, can be an example of ways to educate people. However, managers of companies producing foodstuffs try to avoid announcing GMO existence in their production or categorically deny this fact. Coca Cola, Nestle and McDonald’s are well known to cooperate with Monsanto. Some years ago, McDonald’s officially declared to stop purchasing NewLeaf potatoes modified by Monsanto and any other raw materials for French fries, which were genetically engineered. Representatives of Greenpeace consider Nestle to be one of the most active consumers of GMO. However, the company denies any form of cooperation with biotechnological corporations. The Monsanto Company faced the greatest problems with the advancement of its genetically modified production in Europe due to the embargo imposed by the governments of France, Austria, Hungary, Germany, and other countries of the European Union in 1999. However, Monsanto defended the right to return to the markets of the European Union countries in 2003. The World Trade Organization recognized that the bans on import GM production from the USA, Argentina and Canada (Monsanto is the main biotechnological producer in these countries) were unjustified. In spite of Montano’s victory, the European landowners successfully lobby the interdiction for this company’s production. Hungary has recently refused to cultivate transgenic corn MON 810, which has a property to be crossed to wild plants according to the research conducted by local scientists. The Hungarians are afraid of possible appearance of weeds resistant to herbicides. In order to provide legal regulations of the development and distribution of genetically modified crops, both direct and indirect methods of state regulations should be used. In addition, public and international organizations considerably influence the market of genetically modified products and, hence, the development of a state policy in this sphere. Consumers’ interests should play the central role in the development of a state policy in the field of agricultural biotechnology. Huge work is being done on compiling of general international requirements, rules, and standards concerning genetically modified organisms. Each country has the purpose to protect consumers and manufacturers. The process of coordination is complicated because this production has not been sufficiently explored yet. Moreover, even standards and rules of separate countries are still in the process of working out. This branch of science is constantly developing, and consumers and public opinion demand control toughening over genetically modified products. In case a state is aimed at developing the branch of agricultural biotechnology, which is necessary in the conditions of world globalization, it should elaborate a policy directed to scientific research studies, increase in financing, assistance in stock exchange development and functioning, protection of businessmen within the limits of the antimonopoly law, legal protection of intellectual property rights. The majority of consumers, as well as farmers are not satisfied with the participation of states in the market regulations of genetically modified products worldwide. Governments should affect control over manufacturers, consumers’ notifications, estimation of biosafety of GMO, and research studies carried out. The process of biotechnological branch formation passed several phases. The basic biotechnological companies developed from median and small enterprises, which had evolved receiving patents. Then the majority of them agreed, merged, or were absorbed by large biochemical corporations. About 10 transnational companies supervise 30% of the seeds market and 100% of the market of seeds of genetically modified cultures. Demand for genetically modified plants depends on their economic efficiency. Expenditures on transgenic crops cultivation considerably increase the crop yield. As a whole, expectations of considerable profits from genetically modified plants cultivation have not been realized. Ideal strategies of agricultural biotechnologies regulations should consider interests of various groups of the public, representatives of the biotechnological industry, scientists, as well as international organizations. Only a complex approach to branch regulations provides the world community with the opportunity to solve current and potential problems, which exist and can arise in the conditions of rapid development of agricultural biotechnologies, as one of mainstreams of modern scientific and technical progress. Branch regulations should involve measures to provide developing countries with safe and available genetically modified seeds and plants. Before these new technologies reach farmers in developing countries, they need to meet biosafety standards set by local regulatory authorities. The job of these biosafety authorities is to assess and communicate the potential risk of each new crop, and approve the commercialization of those deemed to be safe. Regulatory bodies additionally need to propose mitigation practices that enable the management of risk after crops are approved and delivered to farmers. As experiences with the approval of specific crops in developing and developed countries show, the process of assessing and approving GM crops isn’t always a smooth, efficient, or timely process. There are nonetheless valuable lessons to learn from cases around the world. (IFPRI, 2010)

References

Barnett, B. J., & Gibson, B. O. (1999). Economic Challenges of Transgenic Crops: The Case to Bt Cotton. Journal of Economic Issues, 33(3), 647. Berenji, S. (2007). Consumers and the Case for Labeling Genfoods. Journal of Research for Consumers, (13), 1+. Agriculture. (2009). In The Columbia Encyclopedia (6th ed.). New York: Columbia University Press. Delivering GM crops to poor farmers. Available at: http://www.ifpri.org/blog/delivering-gm-crops-poor-farmers Federici, B. A. (2002). Chapter 8 Case Study: Bt Crops. In Genetically Modified Crops: Assessing Safety, Atherton, K. T. (Ed.) (pp. 164-194). London: Taylor & Francis. Furniss, C. (2006, July). The New GM Revolution: Plans for Trials of Genetically Modified Crops in Europe Were Met with a Wall of Resistance from Groups Such as Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth and Outraged Editorials in the Tabloids. but in the Developing World, Their Dire Predictions Have Proven Unfounded, and GMOs Are Becoming Increasingly Popular with Small-Scale Farmers, Attracted by the Increased Yields and Profits They Offer. Geographical, 78, 35+. Atherton, K. T. (Ed.). (2002). Genetically Modified Crops: Assessing Safety. London: Taylor & Francis. Gosden, C. & Hather, J. (Eds.). (1999). The Prehistory of Food: Appetites for Change. London: Routledge. Izakson, O. (2003, May/June). Seeds of Doubt: Monsanto in Court. E, 14, 11+. Jain, S. C. (2003). Toward a Global Business Confederation: A Blueprint for Globalization. Westport, CT: Praeger. Nestmann, Copeland, T., & Hlywka, J. (2002). Chapter 1 The Regulatory and Science-Based Safety Evaluation of Genetically Modified Food Crops. In Genetically Modified Crops: Assessing Safety, Atherton, K. T. (Ed.) (pp. 1-41). London: Taylor & Francis. Proctor, J. D. (Ed.). (2005). Science, Religion, and the Human Experience. New York: Oxford University Press

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